In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

31 Mar

A 2013 Morris Award finalist!

A creepy but gripping historical fiction ghost novel about a girl living after the effects of WWI during the terror of the Spanish influenza.

BLACKBIRDS_paperback_cover In the Shadow of Blackbirds

Escaping from her father’s tarnished reputation, 16-year-old Mary Shelley Black travels to live with her young widowed Aunt Eva, who is supporting the war effort by working in a shipyard. Under constant terror of quarantine and death because of the rampant Spanish influenza in that day and age, Mary Shelley is also searching for news of her best friend and young love Stephen Embers, a boy soldier sent to Germany and whose family happens to live near Aunt Eva now. When she visits with the Embers family to sit for a requested portrait and find out more information about Stephen, Mary Shelley notices the odd behavior of its inhabitants. However, with people dying in the streets from the flu and photographers like Stephen’s brother Julius making money in spirit photography for grieving families, it’s no wonder everyone seems weird and tense. When Mary Shelley picks up her picture the next day, she finds out that they received news that Stephen had died in battle, and yet…his ghost is in her portrait. In her devastation and heartbreak, Mary Shelley wanders out into the road during a lightning storm…and dies, having a death experience from which she comes back to life. Mary Shelley doesn’t discover the extent of her new self until she attends Stephen’s funereal and hears Stephen talking to her about his spirit, tormented by blackbirds. Not one to leave things alone even during a time of turmoil, Mary Shelley resolves to discover the secrets behind Stephen’s death as a last gift to her beloved.

An unusual historical fiction novel that gives the feel for the time period, letting you experience the terror of getting the flu and your almost guaranteed death, but also shows how the young men of the day were scarce, having gone to war and either died or come back heavy with physical and emotional scars. Then it takes you on an entirely new journey into a metaphysical plane of awareness and the determination of the self to live. It fulfills escapist tendencies but also makes you grateful for your own time period, one that is decidedly less horrifying and grimy (at least, for most people). Another plus for this novel, rather than feeling like a spectacular stand-alone, Mary Shelley seems like she should continue on, that her story is not finished being told. As a character, she’s so unusual that she’s memorable and mostly likable. The action was less fast-paced than the gamut of YA literature. Though some of the secondary characters were more flat, the greatest strength is the mystery and the unexpected direction of the plot as well as the strong attachment between Mary Shelley and Stephen. Fans of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children or The Diviners might like to read this book, but each take very different directions. I will definitely be reading more books by Cat Winters, like last year’s The Cure for Dreaming and August’s upcoming The Uninvited (adult).

Note: Language, violence, and disturbing images, but nothing too upsetting for middle grade readers.

Side note: Speaking of Libba Bray’s The Diviners, this month, FINALLY, there is an update on Lair of Dreams! Check it out here! (You’ll get a laugh!) Also, book 3 of Miss Peregrine is due out in the fall too!

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Posted by on March 31, 2015 in Historical fiction


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